The first time I walked into a room full of queer women in India, I was so overwhelmed that I went home and wept. I understood very deeply the immense privilege of the situation I was in, and that most young queer people, like myself, would go their entire lives without ever having what I had just experienced.
Coming out as a lesbian in India, be it to yourself or to others, signifies the loss of a certain heteronormative script which governs the lives of most people. This script prescribes a certain timeline by which most lives are ruled, especially in India – marriage, children, in-laws, old age. To be queer in India is to realise that this script will never be your life. But even more significant than the loss of this script is the realisation that there are many things in life that you may never have – a lifelong companion, family, love or happiness. At least, this is what I believed.
As a young woman coming to terms with her gender and sexuality, whom did I know who had had these things? I didn’t even know any queer women who had existed in my country before me. To be a woman who loves women in India is to be unmoored – to live a life devoid of any past, context or history. Because of the erasure of queer female sexuality, even the linguistic possibilities were destroyed. What did it mean to be a lesbian in my language? How was I to bring something into being from thin air, with no words to utter it into reality? How do young queer people chart a life for themselves when the only reference to other people like them comes through the grapevine, or through the news – whispers of suicide, conversion therapy, forced marriages to men, honour killings? And so I resigned myself to a life of solitude and loneliness.
This was until I moved to Mumbai and met other queer women like myself. Through them, I heard of queer elders who had come before us – who had lived and loved here. The whispers, too, changed. Now I heard of women who had lived their whole lives with their partners, women who had adopted children together, women who lived happy and fulfilling lives (whatever happiness means in a queer context). Knowing of queer elders signalled a new lease of life for me. These women, whom I didn’t even know personally, and had only heard of – filled my life with joy. Did any of them hold hands here in this park, albeit in secret? Did they sit and drink cups of chai at this Irani cafe? Did they go to this theatre together to watch movies and eat popcorn and feel momentarily free? The landscape of this city changed for me. All spaces were now full of the possibility of a past that had come before me. Queer elders, for me, signalled hope. I was able to imagine a life for myself where I could grow old, be happy, and find love.
I was able to find myself through community and through this knowledge. These communities, and these women (fractured and fragmented as they may be) give light to me and those like me every single day. Even though we may never meet, I hope these women know what they have done for me.